Yesterday, a 43-year-old Harvard graduate and legal academic became the first non-monastic, directly elected prime minister of Tibet’s exiled government.
The swearing in of Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, not only ended more than 350 years of political leadership by the lineage of the Dalai Lamas over the Tibetan polity, it also capped a half-century of the secular maturation of Tibet’s democratically elected government-in-exile.
Most of what the world knows about Tibet has come through the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959. During more than 50 years in exile, the Dalai Lama has been recognized around the world for his tireless devotion to peace and non--violence and in 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The past half-century has also created the opportunity to modernize Tibet’s government. In 1961, the Dalai Lama presented a draft constitution to Tibetans, which began a two-year dialogue that culminated in its establishment.
In 1990, Tibetans furthered their nascent democratic institutions and practices by establishing an electoral process to directly elect members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, as well as to choose members of the executive branch’s Cabinet. In 2001 came the first direct election of the Tibetan government’s prime minister, or kalon tripa.
With the second five-year term of former kalon tripa Samdhong Rinpoche ending this year, Tibetans worldwide went to the polls last year to elect their next kalon tripa. After two rounds of voting, in October last year and again in March, Sangay, born in exile to parents who fled China’s crackdown in Tibet in 1959, was declared the winner, receiving an absolute majority of votes over two other secular candidates.
While the peaceful electoral process and maturation of a democracy in exile might seem newsworthy enough, two additional compelling events occurred during this time.
First, during both rounds of voting, Chinese officials intervened and disrupted the voting process for about 9,000 eligible Tibetan voters living in exile in Nepal. Nepalese police arrested and detained Tibetans and seized ballot boxes, denying those Tibetans the right to vote and thereby to determine their own political future.
Second, in mid-March the Dalai Lama stepped down from the government, voluntarily devolving all political authority and ending 350 years of direct governance and leadership by successive Dalai Lamas. His reason?
“Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people,” the Dalai Lama said.
Today, the day after Sangay’s historic swearing-in ceremony, it is an understatement to say that he and his people face enormous domestic challenges. These challenges include preserving Tibetan religion, culture and language; healthcare and education; and addressing unemployment across the Tibetan diaspora.
However, it is the very persistence of Tibetan freedom in exile, despite repeated Chinese attempts to crush Tibetans’ traditions and aspirations, at home and in exile, that will carry Sangay and all Tibetans forward.
As the Dalai Lama relinquishes all political authority over the Tibetan polity, at home and abroad, all eyes now turn to Prime Minister Sangay and to the Tibetan people, whose unswerving faith in their non-violent efforts to establish and enhance their constitutional freedoms provide a renewed message of peace and hope for the world.